When uprisings began across the Arab world in 2011, King Mohammed VI of Morocco quickly plunged into a process of political reform, attempting to stave off protests before the groundswell engulfed his regime—the only Arab leader to do so. In a matter of weeks, he created a commission to write a new constitution, which was swiftly approved in a referendum three months later. By October, new parliamentary elections were held, and when the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) won a plurality of seats, the king did not hesitate to name PJD Secretary General Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister.

The king’s bold moves spared Morocco the turmoil and instability many other countries are experiencing. The question is whether Moroccan citizens believe that a significant process of reform is actually taking place that would allow this stability to continue, or whether they think reform has stalled and choose to take matters into their own hands. What is clear at the moment is that although some progress has been made, power still ultimately lies with the king, and the actor with the best chance to pressure the monarchy, al-Adl wal-Ihsan, remains outside of parliament and uninterested in politics—for the time being at least.

An Uncertain Path to Reform

The PJD has been touting the Moroccan response to the Arab Spring as the “third way.” In the eyes of the PJD’s leaders, Morocco has not embarked on a limited process of reform from the top, driven and controlled by the king. Nor has it experienced a revolution brought about by angry citizens rising up against the regime. Rather, it has chosen an alternate path based on a genuine partnership between the king and the PJD that promises to bring about more far-reaching reform than what the palace alone would grant, without the disruption caused by uncontrolled popular upheaval. Eight months after the inauguration of the new government, many Moroccans are beginning to wonder whether the partnership between the still-powerful king and his politically astute entourage on one side and the PJD with its popular support on the other truly represents a promising third way to reform or whether it is simply a return to the status quo.

Doubts about the capacity of the PJD to establish itself as the king’s true partner in reform rather than remaining a weak actor only capable of bringing about marginal, piecemeal change are justified. In 1991, the then king, Hassan II, allowed the most successful opposition party at the time, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), to form the government in a seemingly daring step toward democracy. In reality, the move eliminated the party from the opposition roster without allowing it to exercise real power.

King Mohammed VI appears to have gone one step further, adopting a constitution that obliges him to choose the prime minister from the party that gains the most seats—Hassan II did so voluntarily. But unless the PJD shows greater strength and political ability than the USFP, its participation in government could have the same effect of weakening the organization and undermining the third way concept of reform.

A recent visit to Morocco, one year after the king presented the new constitution to the nation, makes it clear that the third way to reform is more a hope than a reality at this point. The PJD is the largest partner in the governing coalition, setting the tone for the cabinet and introducing some reforms. But the king still has the ultimate power. The constitution gives him exclusive control over all matters of strategic importance—and he is the judge of which matters are strategic. Furthermore, the king is surrounded by politically savvy, experienced advisers who are used to wielding power, while the PJD is still learning the ropes of governing.

The third way remains an extremely unbalanced partnership between the palace and the PJD—power resides mostly in the palace, as does control over much of the economy. It is possible that the balance will shift slowly in favor of the PJD as the party gains experience, but it is equally possible that the Islamists will fail and eventually discover that they traded the role of strong opponents for that of tame partners. To be sure, the success of the third way, if that is the outcome, will be measured in years not in months. But it is certainly premature to hail Morocco as a successful example of incremental reform.

The question of whether there is a viable third way to political change that steers a cautious path between the stagnation that prevails when authoritarian governments do not feel popular pressure and the messy path toward popular sovereignty seen in some Arab countries is not limited to Morocco. In all states that have experienced an uprising, power is still very much divided between the remnants of the old regime and the Islamist parties that have made a strong showing in elections.

Egypt appears to be entering a period of de facto coexistence between the military and other institutions—the deep state—and the popular Islamist forces. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party is in power in coalition with other parties, but the opposition is trying to consolidate under the banner of a new organization, the Call for Tunisia, organized by former prime minister Caid Essebsi, a member of the old regime. If the Essebsi maneuver succeeds—and this is not a foregone conclusion given the fragmentation of secular parties—Tunisia too might see a form of power sharing between political forces representing the old regime and the Islamists. But in both countries, as in Morocco, it is unclear whether this de facto power sharing, with neither side able to eliminate the influence of the other, is going to lead to conflict and instability or to the accommodation and incremental reforms of the third way.

Change Without Confrontation

Although doubts about the viability of the third way are growing, even among Moroccans who originally hailed the king’s approach, some changes are taking place in the country. The PJD is putting great emphasis on two issues: the implementation of the constitution; and the fight for good governance and against corruption.

Implementing the constitution means taking advantage of the potential it offers for the cabinet and the parliament to shape policy. In the new system, the cabinet can meet under the leadership of the prime minister—officially called the president of the government—and reach decisions on any issue that does not involve security or “strategic” matters, which remain the prerogative of the king. On all decisions though, the cabinet is constrained by the desire to avoid conflict with the monarch. For example, under a new law approved by the parliament on May 8, 2012, the prime minister has the right to make more than 1,000 political appointments, while only about 40 appointments are reserved for the king. Needless to say, the appointments left for the king are the most important—such as those in the military, the security forces, the intelligence apparatus, and the diplomatic service.

Despite a formal level of granted autonomy, the PJD still apparently consults with the palace even on the appointments the prime minister is entitled to make. In part, this is simply because the PJD does not have its own networks of expertise and contacts that would allow it to make independent choices. But in part it is also because the party does not want a confrontation with the king, as its leaders never tire of stressing.

Whatever the reasons for the PJD’s deference to the palace, the new government appears to be playing around the margins of important reforms rather than tackling them head-on. Two issues are revealing in this regard: the PJD’s attempt to fight corruption and introduce a higher degree of morality in public life, and the reform of a costly system of subsidies that eats away at the budget and creates considerable economic distortions without helping the poor.

The PJD appears quite sincere in its determination to introduce morality in public life. Its ministers are casting themselves as men of the people—continuing to live in their old homes rather than moving into official residences, dispensing as much as possible with the public display and perks that go along with authority. They emphasize that their thrift has reduced operating expenses of the ministries by as much as 50 percent (the author could not find out how these percentage have been calculated) and that they invested the some 5 billion dirhams thus saved in efforts to improve services for the poor. Together with other funding, the savings have allowed the government to launch an ambitious new medical assistance program (RAMED), which will benefit approximately 8.5 million low-income people, 4 million living in absolute poverty, 4.5 million at risk, and almost 160,000 residents of welfare centers, prisons, and other institutions. The program is a PJD initiative, but it was the king that presided over the official launch of RAMED in Casablanca in April, in keeping with the tradition that prescribes that all good things come from the monarch.

While the PJD’s efforts to trim operational expenses and increase financing for programs that help disadvantaged Moroccans are commendable, they are of marginal importance when compared to the real problem of corruption and income disparities the country faces. The king and the palace control important sectors of the economy and most estimates put the king among the wealthiest leaders in the world, despite the country’s poverty.

The monarch’s business interests are widespread, and his stakes in sectors like food distribution, cement production, and phosphate mining mean that he directly benefits from a number of government economic policies, for example infrastructure projects that consume large amounts of cement. Even the system of subsidies that keeps the price of staple foods, cooking gas, diesel, and gasoline below cost—and currently eats up about 6 percent of the country’s GDP and 13 percent of the budget—translates into benefits for the king and those around him who supply the enlarged market created by subsidies, while state and taxpayers bear the cost.

It is debatable whether the king’s widespread economic interests represent corruption in the narrow sense of the word, but there can be no doubt that the king’s capacity to build a vast business network is directly related to his political power. The king’s activities are completely beyond the capacity of the PJD to challenge, particularly since the party rejects confrontation. The PJD denounces corruption, preaches morality in the behavior of public officials, and practices the ethical way of living it promotes. It might even be willing at some point to challenge minor players, but the central issue of corruption in high places is beyond its reach.

The issue of subsidies shows both the limits of what the PJD can do without confronting the king and the real danger that the palace will be able to manipulate the party, leaving it to take the blame for unpopular decisions. Economists are in agreement that across-the-board subsidies are a poor use of government resources, benefiting those who do not need help and distorting the market. For example, subsidized bottles of cooking gas end up not only in the kitchens of the poor and rich alike but also in small factories and fields, where banks of gas bottles are used to power water pumps and other machinery. The government estimates that 70 percent of subsidies go to the top 20 percent of the population.

In theory, the solution is simple: the government should replace across-the-board subsidies with cash aid to poor families, which would help the truly needy while lowering overall cost and eliminating economic distortions. But reform of the subsidy system in general is broadly unpopular. The poor fear that they will not receive the promised payments; the middle class, ineligible for cash payments, does not want to pay higher prices; and businesses that scam the system do not want to pay for the true cost of energy.

The PJD’s program calls for a transition from subsidies to targeted assistance. Many Moroccans believe that the palace is all too happy to let the government experiment with the change, which started with an increase in the price of gasoline and diesel in June and supposedly will conclude with the elimination of all subsidies by the end of the government’s mandate in 2016. If problems result from the change, consumer anger and blame would be directed at the government while the palace could get rid of an old problem at little political risk to itself.

Keeping the Momentum of Reform

Reform in Morocco has not run its course. The PJD is determined to take further steps to  moralize public life and protect the poor. But the present balance between a party that wants to avoid confrontation and the palace that still appears considerably more powerful than the elected government does not augur well for the depth of reforms. There are limits to what the PJD can accomplish without confronting vested interests. The 1991 scenario, when inclusion in the government turned the USFP into a “government party,” as one of its leaders admitted in an interview with the author, could be repeated unless the monarchy comes under greater pressure than the PJD is currently willing to exert.

It is unlikely that such pressure will come from the parliament and the parties represented in it. The PJD has allied itself with the Istiqlal Party, the Popular Movement, and the smaller Party of Progress and Socialism, all of them moderate. The parliamentary parties that are not in the government are either insignificant or even closer to the monarchy—they are in opposition to the PJD, not the king. There are, however, some potentially important extra-parliamentary political actors that have so far remained on the margins of the political process and could yet become a determinant factor.

Three extra-parliamentary groups deserve watching: the activists of the February 20 Movement, whose demonstrations in the streets of major cities triggered the king’s decision to move ahead with a new constitution immediately before protest turned into an uprising; Salafi organizations; and al-Adl wal-Ihsan, an Islamist organization that adamantly refuses to recognize the king’s religious role as the “commander of the faithful” and thus does not take part in the legal political process.

The February 20 Movement has become largely inactive. Youthful activists were not able to sustain the momentum of protest, both because of organizational shortcomings and because many Moroccans were willing to wait and see what the king’s reforms would bring. The loose network of activists that constituted the movement was initially supported by an unlikely combination of hardline leftist groups and al-Adl wal-Ihsan members, but this support has now disintegrated, with al-Adl wal-Ihsan announcing on December 19 that it was suspending its support for the February 20 Movement.

Despite its dormancy, February 20 could fill an important niche in Morocco by becoming a channel for secular groups that are dissatisfied with the status quo, do not believe that the current secular parties can be effective, and do not identify with Islamist movements. While the potential exists, there is so far no evidence that it is being realized.

Most Salafi organizations do not appear ready to enter the political fray in full force yet. This sets Morocco apart from Egypt, where Salafis unexpectedly formed a political party soon after the overthrow of Mubarak and secured over 20 percent of parliamentary seats a year later. The situation also differs from Tunisia’s, where Salafis have become a vocal and at times violent extra-parliamentary force, finally launching their own Reform Front party in May. In Morocco, however, most Salafis are still concentrating on education and proselytizing—and are divided among the followers of different sheikhs in these endeavors—as well as on fighting for the release of their imprisoned colleagues.

A Salafi political organization, the Umma Party, was formally accredited in July but has not yet been active. Sheikh Mohammed Al-Fizazi has also recently begun arranging meetings with Salafi forces to discuss the country’s political situation and has allegedly announced plans to establish a political party, Al ‘Ilm Wal ‘Amal, but it remains unclear how far along he is in the organization and mobilization process.

Al Adl wal Ihsan is an entirely different matter: a political force with the organizational capacity and membership to become a major player, putting real pressure on the monarchy and potentially forcing the reform process to a different level.
Founded in 1973, Al-Adl wal-Ihsan is not a legal, registered organization, so figures about its following do not exist. But it is not a particularly secretive one either, with its leaders quite willing to talk to outsiders, and it is considered to be the largest Islamist organization in Morocco. Most of its activities are devoted to the Islamization of society rather than politics.

While they refuse to accept the king’s role as commander of the faithful, the organization’s leaders hint that they might be willing to accept the king as a constitutional monarch. But they make no secret that they favor a republican form of government. The refusal to submit to the central rule of Moroccan politics—including accepting the king as the supreme religious as well as political authority—has landed leaders of al-Adl wal-Ihsan, including its founder, in jail repeatedly.

The decision not to enter politics puts al-Adl wal-Ihsan in a difficult and ultimately untenable situation that could condemn it to political irrelevance despite its considerable potential. It could have major political influence—indeed, some claim that it already does. Many of its members, it is argued, probably participate in the political process by voting despite the leadership’s directives and have contributed to the success of the PJD. Its organization already allows it to pursue political activities—its Shura Council and Guidance Bureau preside over two separate “circles,” one devoted to proselytizing and educating and the other to politics. The latter is structured much like a party, with women, youth, and worker organizations as well as geographic sections in different localities. The group even has a research center, suggesting an interest in concrete issues and policies. No other extra-parliamentary group in Morocco has an even remotely comparable structure.

It is unclear what could trigger a decision by al-Adl to participate in politics—perhaps the death of its aging founder or a renewal of street protests as the third way proves insufficient to make inroads in solving Morocco’s problems. But it seems unlikely that the organization that is best equipped to force a more dynamic process of change in Morocco will sit on the sidelines forever. A change in the policy of al-Adl would pose a new, more significant challenge for the monarchy and call into serious question the PJD’s third way.

No matter what decisions extra-parliamentary groups in Morocco reach in the coming months, the third way is likely to be challenged by Moroccans who want deeper and swifter change.